Michelle Webb - New York Fretless Festival Interview
New York Fretless Festival Interview 2008
This interview took place at the
third New York Fretless festival, September 2008.
Jeff: Michelle, you did a great set tonight.
Michelle: Thank You
Jeff: Seeing you perform with the 14 string fretless guitar
was just awesome, it is a very unusual instrument, what made you commission the guitar?
Michelle: It had been an idea of mine for at least the last 15 years, when I was a
kid I even had ideas of an instrument that encompassed a bass range and a guitar range,
at the same time and on the same neck.
Mathematically the way a (guitar) fretboard and a bass fretboard are put together, the
frets wind up in different places. Having said that I felt some way it was possible.
So, I got a guitar luthier to work with me on my idea. Ever since I started playing
guitar I didn't really want to choose between bass and guitar and ultimately that's
where the idea came from.
Jeff: You mention frets, but the instrument is fretless,
what drove that idea?
Michelle: It comes from me being a big fan of World music, and African music,
and these instruments that were originally fretless and also highly percussive,
which fretless instruments tend to be. If you play them straight away and
you don't play it through any effects, maybe some reverb / compression and that's it,
but not douse it with a bunch of delay or distortion, and you hit the note on the instrument,
its very percussive, and that's a quality that the early West African instruments have.
Those older instruments, from places like West Africa, paid no attention to register, they
were just made without reference to register. It was what it was.
Not like a guitar that has six strings E to E and that's were it begins and ends.
So the original instrument makers were not thinking in fixed terms,
so I stripped those terms away from me, and tried to figure out an instrument
for me that would not only be an instrument that sounds like my instrument but sounds
like me playing it.
Jeff: That's a long way back, what sparked that trigger?
Michelle: Well, when I was at high school, I saw for the first time ever, an
interview in Guitar Player
magazine with Tim Donahue, and I lost my mind, I thought that that was,
and he was, and his guitar was, the coolest thing I had ever seen.
And to take you back to an even earlier time, I was this kid at five or six years old and
asking her Grandfather to buy her this guitar, but when she is sitting in the car and
pointing it out to her Grandfather so that he can go into the guitar store, make the deal,
and come out with the guitar, he comes out with something completely different to what
I was pointing at, I was pointing at a bass guitar, he comes out with an acoustic guitar.
So I had that experience of immediately wanting both.
Then the experience of seeing Tim Donahue playing a fretless instrument, that I'm also
enamoured by, but at the time in the late eighties for a high school student, there was
no access to get a fretless guitar so I thought that there's just this cool guy, that's
living in Japan, that's doing this cool stuff, and it would be great if I could do that
but I don't know how to access it.
Jeff: So the seeds were planted some time back?
Yes, but without the resources the idea went to the sidelines, but then about seven years
ago I decided to defret a classical guitar. I liked that, people laugh when I tell them
this because I'm not a luthier by any means, I can do very basic guitar set up and maintenance,
like soldering pickups into my electric guitars is the heaviest thing I do.
So I took the frets out of my acoustic guitar and I filled the frets with crazy glue, because
I didn't have any epoxy, and I'd heard it was messy, but I had plenty of crazy glue
around the house so that's what I filled it with, just so when I slid in between where the
frets had been there would be something there. I actually liked that apart from the fact that
it was not done very well.
Later I got an electric fretless neck made for me by Warmoth and I put that on one of my old
Stratocasters, there are pictures of that blue stratocaster on my myspace page.
Jeff: So you had a couple of fretless guitar before the 14 string.
Michelle: Yes, but then I got in contact with Kevin Seibald who is the luthier that created
my fourteen string fretless. He creates touch style guitars they are similar to Chapman Sticks.
I saw one of his instruments for sale on ebay, apparently he created a touch style guitar for
someone and they didn't want it so he was selling it on ebay.
I said wow, I love the natural wood organicness of the way that that looks it looks like he
cut it out of raw wood, and like gave it to somebody.
He's like this old mystic guy that lives in the woods and cuts your guitar out of like a tree
you know and gives it to you. So I kinda liked that idea so I got in contact with him and asked
him if he could make me an instrument like that but that I could play normally (not tap style).
After telling me how crazy I was he told me that it was a good idea, and he would be willing
to work with me on it.
He's a really freeing easy type of individual to work with but he also has his limitations,
one of them is he will only make an electric guitar. He will not make an acoustic guitar - he
knows what he does well and he's only interested in doing that. I can certainly admire him
for his artistry when it comes to that.
So that's kinda how it was built, who built it, and my idea behind it, I hear bass tones,
I hear low sub tones, in my head musically and I hear things that are guitar or guitar like,
and the instrument brings those two ideas together.
Jeff: So being in one place you feel stronger as a solo performer rather
than being part of a band?
Michelle: That's a good question, I see myself being able to play this instrument as a solo
performer, but I could also play this instrument in a band that had a bass player or vice-versa
I could play this instrument in a band that had a guitar player. It would probably be a little
bit more redundant if I played this instrument in a band with a guitar player.
But if we made it interesting and I played this instrument in a band with a mandolin player or
a mando-cello player you know then it starts to get interesting.
Whenever you play an acoustic or electric guitar, that low E string is the lowest you are going
to get, I did not want to end there, what I hear in my head went lower than that, and now I'm
experiencing a situation where they are going higher than that as well - that's why me and Kevin
have talked about making a harp guitar. If that happens we can talk about that further.
Me being a stronger solo artist is just a by product of going in this direction.
Jeff: When you say E is your lowest note on a six string guitar a lot of people
will liken the range of a six string guitar to the range of the human voice, so would that say
that the human voice does not feature as part of your mind set when you are thinking about music?
Michelle: Mmmm...you know actually, when I think about music, it doesn't. I think about the things
that the human voice reminds us of musically. When we think of being really melodic, when we think
of putting a very tasty well executed - almost just like a fantastic piece of chocolate type of line
together musically, regardless of the instrument, we think about the voice,
I don't think about the human voice, I think about putting a fantastic line together.
I think my definitions have stretched, my definitions are not the general definitions of what
people think about music and where it can go, and the limitations of the voice, or the limitations
of the guitar, do represent a limit, a good thing which I don't dispute,
I just, I want it all, in a sense a complete musical range, is what I'm saying.
Jeff: From what you are telling me, I would guess that you feel you are
long way away from your real potential.
Jeff: You've got a lot to explore,
Michelle: Yes definitely, I see the relationship between bass range and treble range,
I see the differences between being able to fluently play the guitar, fretless and being able to
fluently play with frets jammed into it, at any proximity. To create any sort of tones be they diatonic
or microtonal or whatever, I think that for me the divides between all of those things are
very transparent. And I think that that helps me and it also pushes me, because my limits are
much further out, it just means that I have a long way to go.
So, yes I'm always pushing and trying to explore new things.
Jeff: Do you feel that's a lonely path?
Michelle: Yes, absolutely, I was talking to a number of my colleagues this evening which I think
is a very interesting thing, that musicians should probably do.
What I'm getting at is this, a friend of mine in Washington DC, intrigued about why I wanted to
do this festival, looked up everything they could possibly look up about the fretless guitar.
They looked at old footage of the old festivals, they found some video on line of some
players. They came to me about a week and a half ago actually, before I came out here,
and they said to me, they said you know, but there's so much that these people are doing
and its fantastic, but I do notice something, and I notice that, a lot of them, its almost
like exploring this new instrument, and its not all squeaky clean, its not perfect, there
are a lot of people not playing in tune. So what's up with that? I said, they replied,
You know you kinder made it harder for yourself. (playing fretless)
So going back to the question of it's a lonely path, erm, yes and no, my favourite musicians
are ones that always, push, they are constantly pushing.
They might push in their own way, but they are always pushing.
They see a vision and they are doing it, but I guess its really important to have a vision,
not just go out and try to something but have some kind of something that you want to try to achieve.
I listen to and get a lot of ideas from fretless bass players, in my experience, and this is
only my experience so I don't want to make it sound like fretless guitar players don't do this.
But I do feel there are fretless guitar players that don't know enough about nor listen
enough to fretless bass players, it is essentially the same instrument. Its just they are only
dealing with the last four strings of our instrument, down an octave. That is literally the difference,
and that's the only difference, and we put such a divide between them and us.
Jeff: Bass players tend to be more open to new ideas.
Michelle: You know and its interesting our instruments from the beginning were
fretless instruments and the mutation of that instrument as it moved across the
globe you started to see frets, although originally the very first frets you saw were tied
on string frets, very much strings that are tied around the neck of the instrument and act as frets.
They can be moved if you so choose, as the guitar, or what we call the guitar today
moved around the globe you went from fretless to string frets to actually shoving a piece
of something (slaps hand for emphasis) to divide one note from another note.
Jeff: You feel quite strongly about that?
Michelle: I say all of that to say our instrument originally originated as a fretless instrument,
its really interesting how hard we have to work to get back to that original connection.
'Cause all of us start as fretted players, for the most part, but bass players have got
for the most part got it right.
Jeff: Maybe bass players have a different mindset?
Michelle: Yea, well I think a lot of the questions you've asked me tonight in a sense maybe and
could be rounded up with mindset, I have a different mindset, I think, than the average
guitar player, I think that that's fair to say, and so it leads me, in some different
directions, and I'm not saying its all right or successful, I've had ideas for guitars
that are not successful, (laughs) partially fretted craziness for instruments that were not
successful but that mindset is always pushing me in an explorer type of mode, and I
think that that's good, great musicians, all great songwriters, they are all in that
mode of like pushing and exploring, and I think that that is, where the good stuff comes
from, and the people that we admire most, whether we realise it or not, are the people who
despite everything continue to be open and explore those things.
Jeff: What about the real Michelle?
Michelle: The real Michelle likes Captain Crunch cereal, soup when she's sick, loves tooling
away on the internet, is an ebay junkie and never feels like she spends enough time practising.
Jeff: That's musician's guilt.
Jeff: We all suffer from that!
Michelle: Mmm mmm Yea.
Jeff: And you do music full time?
Michelle: I do, fortunately enough, I do a combination of a lot of things, and I actually
asked Elliot Sharp that same question tonight, he is probably one of my biggest influences I
have been listening to Elliot for years and of course as soon as I say that in an interview
all you guys are going to be contacting me saying; No I'm the biggest Elliot Sharp fan,
NO I'M THE BIGGEST ELIOTT SHARP FAN, but I will say that I have more Elliot
Sharp records than anyone I know. So anyway, I really like him and he was there tonight
and I felt so lucky to talk to him and get his mindset on things, like how do you survive.
So how do I survive? I do a lot of different things, in a lot of different genres I do play
the avant garde experimental freely improvised stuff which is what most people actually
know me for, but I also do, for lack of a better term, straight music gigs, someone
calls me to do a recording session, so I show up with a couple of different guitars, ready to
read music, and do the session.
So that's a part of who I am and what I do, I also score for film and television, which is
something I've been doing for quite some time now. And I mean everything from independent
films to last year MTV was using my music for the Real World and Road Wars, I also
score for the stage, I do sound design work for the stage, and I say I have a pretty
strong knowledge of Pro-Tools and recording.
I teach a lot, I used to live in the state of New Mexico up until recently and I
left behind about 44 students, it was like holding down a full time teacher's student roster.
So I teach, I score, I Perform, I put out CDs, I collaborate with people on their projects,
I do session work, that's a lot of what I do, and I do all of that stuff because
I like doing it. (Throws a big smile)
Jeff: That's pretty good if you actually enjoy the work you do.
Michelle: Yeah. I had this gig writing music, for Time-Warner, I used to be a
composer for them and I would come home and not really like what I did. I just
had an attitude where I would come home and not feel like hearing anything about
music or doing anything with music, or creating any music, I was just exhausted
artistically, by the time I left there, every day, so yeah, its important to
love what you do. And yeah, I'm doing a lot of things I love to do.
So I feel pretty lucky.
Jeff: Your favourite food?
Michelle: My favourite food is Asian food, and my favourite food out that would be Sushi.
Jeff: Favourite colour?
Michelle: My Favourite colour is red, actually and I always say that
hesitatingly because I like black, I like orange, I like all of those kind
of bold in-your-face colours.
Jeff: That's very your personality though, you're a very strong lady.
Michelle: Well thank you, I see that as a compliment.
Jeff: Oh Yeah.
Jeff: That's what makes you, you.
Michelle: Yeah, yeah.
Jeff: That picture that you sent to the website, I thought that
was very powerful. I thought, "Wow, I'm going to look forward to hearing this lady in New York."
Michelle: Mm yeah (laughs) Ralph Gibson took that picture actually, very well known and well
respected photographer here in New York City, he took that picture for a book, which
he gave me a copy of this evening. It is called "The State of the Axe" and it is dedicated
to Derek Bailey, who was another very heavy influence on me, basically the book is great photography,
and then each picture has a little blurb about the relationship between that guitarist and their
guitar. So you read about all these great guitar players, Lou Reid, Jim Hall, Bill Frizell,
Nels Cline, and what they feel about their relationship with their guitar, I just feel so blessed,
that Ralph thought enough of me to put me in a book with those people.
Elliot's in the book too, so are a lot of great guitar players. So its interesting
you like that picture, Ralph likes it too, but that picture is not the one used in the
book, so there you go.
Jeff: So basically life is sweet I guess, it sounds like you are doing pretty well.
Michelle: Yeah, yeah, if life wasn't a little challenging, or a lot challenging,
then we wouldn't be able to make the music we do, our music would be pretty stale.
Jeff: So it needs a bit of pain?
Michelle: No! because the pain gets boring too, and dark heavy stuff gets boring too,
its like is this person ever happy? You know, I don't mean to make fun of them,
I love their music, but for a while I felt that way about Mugwai - you know, are
they ever happy? Are they ever going to...
Jeff: Lighten up?
Michelle: Yeah, what do we have to do? I know they are not broke,
sorry but what are we going to do. Well so, so hilarious, I think the dark
stuff gets boring, I think the happy stuff gets boring, I think the exiting thing that
most people find about music, I know I certainly do, is that it has the
ebb and flow, like life does,
Jeff: Like Summer and Winter
Jeff: If it didn't vary we would be very, very bored.
Jeff: Well are you happy with everything we covered?
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